Tarsem Singh’s Immortals is an undeniably gorgeous, brilliantly shot film. It’s also a 101 level course in basic fantasy hero tale-telling, a bullet point checklist of every conceivable trope seen in every sword-and-sandals epic we’ve witnessed in the last 50 years. It’s not that the story is weak — the story is fine — it’s just that despite the spectacular visuals and solid performances, there is little in that story to pique your interest. It’s as if Singh simply went down the list:
In this case, the young impoverished peasant is Theseus (Henry Cavill), who is drawn into the events after his village is attacked and slaughtered by the hulking, vicious king Hyperion (Mickey Rourke). Hyperion seeks a magical bow that will enable him to release a race of warrior-creatures known as Titans, who are the only beings capable of killing the Gods of Ancient Greece that he wishes to wage war on. Along the way he gathers a small company of cohorts, including the beautiful seer Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and the thief Stavros (Steven Dorff). All the while, his actions are anxiously observed by the Gods — Zeus (Luke Evans), Athena (Isabel Lucas), Poseiden (Kellan Lutz), Heracles (Steve Byers), Helios (Peter Stebbings), and Aries (Daniel Sherman).
If you’ve seen Clash Of The Titans or 300 or any of a dozen other similarly themed epics, you probably can figure the rest out — Singh and writers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides didn’t stray particularly far from the basic storytelling model. It’s the type of film that, if read straight from the page, would more than likely feel decidedly formulaic, if not outright boring. It throws a curveball here and there and is a far more brutal and blood-drenched story than the conventional hero tale, but it’s still a meat-and-potatoes fantasy novel come to life.
What salvages it is Singh’s gift for utterly fantastical visuals and a breathtaking ability to build a setting and direct a sequence. Singh’s other films have felt similar — films like The Cell and The Fall weren’t the most riveting of tales, but his way of telling them, his talent for sumptuous, lush visual effects and atmosphere elevate them from being derivative to being gorgeous spectacles. Immortals is no different. The painstaking attention to details, in his sets, his costume design and makeup are so stunning that it makes the film less of a story and more of an art piece. The decadent, terrifying masks and armor of Hyperion’s army are as striking as the vast landscapes so lovingly captured by the film’s impressive cinematography. Immortals is an enjoyable affair because Singh has infused every single frame with unbelievable flair. It’s a pallette of browns and grays and glinting steel, suffused with brilliant red and orange splashes to create a vibrant contrasts.
Splendid visuals aside, he’s also proven himself to be a skilled action director, and the numerous scenes of bloody violence are akin to watching a gruesome, visceral, stunningly brutal poem in motion. In this aspect, he eschews the modern conventions of over-editing and slow-motion, and instead uses extended, single-frame shots of balletic mayhem, and it serves the film incredibly well. Watching Theseus begin at one end of the screen and fluidly cut down wave after wave of enemy, at actual speed and without shifting the camera angle, provides a far more effective and engrossing experience. You can truly feel like you understand what’s happening, and see every whirl of the sword, watching graceful footwork as color-enhanced scarlet blood arcs through the air. Tarsem Singh is the director Zack Snyder wishes he could be, paying less attention to the effects themselves and more to assembling them in an artful, riveting fashion.
The dialogue is mostly standard, occasionally cringe-inducing melodrama, but the actors are gamely up to the task. Mickey Rourke is suitably menacing and terrifying as Hyperion, full of dull glares and grim statements like “witness… hell.” Cavill is engaging and affable, mixed with the right notes of heroic proclamations and shouting fury. Freida Pinto doesn’t have much to do other than look beautiful (which, by God, she does in spades) and occasionally murmur cryptically and and be innocently seductive. My favorite part of the film was criminally underused, the sardonic rogue played by Stephen Dorff, who glibly provides the scenes few scenes of comic relief from all the blood and gloom.
If you use storytelling as your measuring stick, Immortals is a relatively standard tale, touching upon most of the major tropes and cliches of its genre. It’s got enough twists and an occasionally unsettling darkness to separate itself somewhat from the pack, but not exceptionally so. Yet with solid performances and a truly spectacular visual landscape replete with surreal, eyecatching characters and lavish, engrossing action direction, the film somehow allows you to forgive (somewhat) the paint-by-numbers story and simply bask in the film’s atmosphere. Immortals is not a great movie — it’s a somewhat banal, uninspired story that’s salvaged by a director who once again proves his talent for creating paintings come to life. If Singh could somehow merge those gifts with a truly original, interesting story, that would be a sight unlike no other. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’ve got here — but what we’ve got ain’t bad.